The competency trap: how to tell if you’re in one and how to get out of it

by Liz Benson

Have you ever been told that there’s an easier way to do something yet you don’t really listen because you have a way you prefer? You might even know there’s a better, faster, more effective way but it’s just so hard to let go of the way you’ve always done it.

For example, you know you could use an electric mixer to make the cake batter but you like the feeling of mixing it with a wooden spoon and some elbow grease.

This is known as the competency trap.

The competency trap is where you continue to do familiar, routine tasks, or use the same, familiar products, because you know they’ll work. It’s comfortable and it’s not hurting anyone else. By falling into this trap, you could be limiting your opportunities to grow, improve, and even move forward in your career.

We’ve all been victims of the competency trap at one point or another. While can be harmless how do you know if you’re stuck and, importantly, what can you do if you are?

Four signs you could be stuck in the competency trap at work and at home

  1. It’s been awhile since you’ve updated your processes
    In any position at any company, there is always processes and systems in place to ensure the company continues to function. You’ve probably got a few processes in place for yourself. When was the last time you updated these? Could there be a simpler way to do things?
  2. You’re still using the same products you’ve used for years
    The products you’re using might need some consideration. Products are constantly being improved and the chances are, if you haven’t updated them for quite some time then they’re more than likely outdated. This doesn’t mean your current products aren’t working, it means there may be a solution out there that works better or faster.
  3. It’s hard to get approval for new ideas
    Maybe you’re stuck in a competency trap because your company makes it easier to maintain the status quo. For example, if the approval process is long and slow, or the cost is questioned at every turn, it can discourage you from suggesting change. If your company falls into a competency trap, then it affects its competitiveness and that can affect your career.
  4. No one else can do your job
    How much does your company rely on you to handle certain issues or situations? You can slip into a competency trap if you are so good at handling a certain situation that the others in your company come to depend on you to solve it every time that situation arises. If you’re not there, what happens?

This can seem desirable; after all, if no one else can do your job then it might seem like you’re indispensable. In practice, this usually means you get saddled with more of the workload and feel a responsibility to always be available. This can impact your personal life and your ability to take on new projects at work. Remember, no one is truly indispensable, so your best option is to continue trying to find ways to improve, train other staff members to take on some of the responsibility, and grab your opportunities to move forward with both hands.

The feeling that no one else can do your job can permeate your home life, too. Often, mothers are the only ones cooking meals, cleaning the house (real cleaning too, not the quick sweep and wipe you do before guests come over), doing the laundry, and scrubbing the dishes. However, letting partners and children help can save you time, giving you more time to spend doing fun things as a family. And, even if it’s not done exactly how you would do it, it’s important to let go so you can focus on more important things.

Four ways to escape the competency trap

  1. Open your mind
    The hardest and most important first step to escaping the competency trap is to open your mind to the possibility that there may be a better way. Whether it’s a better system, product, approach, or piece of technology that can help you improve the way you do things, it’s valuable to take time to assess these with an open mind. Consider how they can make a material difference to your day and think about what you might do with the time they can free up. When you keep those benefits in mind, it can be easier to see the value of new options.
  2. Let go
    Often, we’re stuck in the competency trap at least in part because we don’t think anyone else can do what we do the way we do it, or get the results we do. The truth is often very different. With some training and knowledge-sharing, you can set others up to take on some of the load. It’s important to let go of the feeling that, if someone else can do what we do, then we’re no longer essential. Instead, think of it as leaving a more junior version of yourself behind so you can move forward into new and more interesting challenges.
  3. Trust others
    Whether it’s dealing with customer complaints at work or cleaning the bathroom properly, if you’re going to climb out of the competency trap then you’ll need to trust that others can do a perfectly adequate job. This will let you release your grip on the tasks that are really just taking up your time without adding value.
  4. Be encouraging
    Once you’ve delegated tasks to others, it’s important to demonstrate that you trust them by being encouraging. This means avoiding the temptation to point out that they didn’t get all the streaks off the shower screen or that you might have handled that difficult customer differently. Instead, focus on the outcomes they achieve and be positive about what they’ve done. This will lead to increased confidence on their part, which will help them continue to build their capability.

As you start to claw your way out of the competency trap, you’ll start to reap the benefits like increased time doing the things you want to do, instead of being bogged down in the things you have to do. If the thought of giving up control feels scary, you might want to start small with low-stakes activities that don’t really affect other people before working your way up to the big ones.